Friday, April 20, 2018

Simone St. James Will Keep You On the Edge...

The book that started it all...
Very rarely do I pick up books whose covers feature a fetching young woman in 1920's garb, looking resolute, worried, or scared. These always end up being campy, poorly written, and redundant. However, in 2013, I picked up The Haunting of Maddy Clare (2012) by Simone St. James and thought, "What the heck? Let's go for it." I read it in one day. It was full of intrigue, historical accuracy, clever women, fighting the patriarchy, sexual tension (St. James can paint a steamy picture!), and, possibly best of all, ghosts. I made my mother read it, I did an entire display around it at my library job, and then unfortunately for me, forgot about it. Fast forward five years later, when I check out Lost Among the Living (2016). I read the other five St. James novels in a month. And am still
obsessing over them.

Simone St. James
Simone St. James is a Canadian author who worked in television before becoming an author. She has made an excellent career shift. She has perfected her ability to read a book that not only intrigues the reader with a mystery, but also disarms the reader with twists and turns that keep you guessing until the end. St. James engages in cliched tropes in books... but somehow it works for her. She has the overdone post war setting; World War I has usually just ended in her books, but, under her, this time period is gritty, miserable, and confusing, a complete juxtaposition to the romanticized post war period often portrayed. She has ridiculously romantic situations, which are gripping and challenging, and add to the characters' growth in the story. The setting is usually some huge, crumbling that people are desperate to maintain some semblance of normalcy in their lives, despite the mystery and paranormal swirling around them; this has been done over and over in gothic mysteries, yet seems new and compelling through St. James. It's insane how St. James manages to twist all of these standard plot devices and weave them into a story worth rereading. St. James' strength lies in her ability to write flawed heroines, women who fight the fight despite setbacks, but also recognize and struggles with their problems and mistakes. Readers can identify with her impoverish, but hopeful, sad, but resilient, clever, but humble protagonists. These women, however, are unapologetic for being who they are and that is their common strength. Enter the dashing hero who loves her for her. It is a cliched trope, but somehow, St. James makes these love interests interesting, flawed, and admirable. The reader is rooting for the characters' love connection.

Yet, love connections cannot detract from the main component in St. James' books: ghosts. Ghosts are difficult to write and authors unknowingly stumble into the pit of religious debate with life after death. However, St. James steers clear of this and creates her ghosts to be willing participants in seeking revenge for their deaths and solving mysteries perpetuated by the bad guys that endanger the living. These ghosts interact with the living and remain a constant source of anxiety and action throughout the book. There are no friendly ghosts; just ones that seek to discover the truth. Ghosts and their paranormal interactions is what propels St. James' books into the 'Must Read' category. It is rare to find an author who can have ghost, horror, and death without gore or extreme violence and still be fascinating. St. James has a style of writing that is clipped, precise, and peels like an onion, revealing bits and pieces of information slowly and methodically, until the reader is screaming with revelation at the end.

St. James' latest book, The Broken Girls (2018) is a slight departure from her usual. The story
Be still, my anxious heart...
bounces between the present and the 1940's at a girls boarding school. The two eras are tied together by a crumbling campus, death, and a ghost who reveals the worst moment of your life at the worst moment. The protagonist might be one of St. James' best; she is relentless, determined, almost impossible to sympathize with, and is so wonderfully realistic, you cannot help but root for her. The reader will take on her obsession and will be turning the pages until the dramatic conclusion. This book, unlike St. James' past books, focuses on human connection and the human experience rather than just a murder mystery. It focuses on the obsession of our inner demons and how evil from the past is never really done.

These books are must reads for anyone who appreciates strong women, mysteries, and the paranormal. They are quick reads, but the story will stay with you for a long time. The romance, the action, the mystery, and the strong writing keep the plot quick paced and before the reader knows it, they're in the middle of a riveting confrontation in a world where the lines between life and death are blurred. You cannot help but question the possibility of ghosts after reading a St. James book; besides, in their situation, what would you do to seek revenge?

Pictures courtesy of

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Stay Safe and then Read a Book

For everyone who needs help and for everyone who is interested in helping, this is the best, comprehensive list I have found.  I swiped it from NPR, because, honestly, I trust them.

General Relief
Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner established a Harvey relief fund at The Greater Houston Community Foundation. The organization connects donors with a network of nonprofits and innovative solutions in the social sector.
GlobalGiving, which calls itself the largest global crowdfunding community, has a goal of raising $2 million for its Harvey relief fund. Funds will be used first for immediate needs of food, water and shelter and then transition to long-term recovery efforts.
United Way of Greater Houston has launched a relief fund for storm-related needs and recovery. The organization says it already maintains a disaster relief fund but anticipates the needs of Harvey will far exceed those existing resources.

The Center for Disaster Philanthropy has also launched a Hurricane Harvey relief fund. The organization says its strategy emphasizes "investing well rather than investing quickly, addressing the greatest needs and gaps in funding that may be yet to emerge."
GoFundMe, the social fundraising site, has created a landing page that gathers the campaigns on its platform related to Harvey.
The Salvation Army says it is providing food and water to first responders and preparing for massive feeding efforts for residents.
Send Relief and Southern Baptist Disaster Relief says its teams began responding before Harvey made landfall and continues on-the-ground relief work.
Samaritan's Purse is accepting donations as well as volunteers for Harvey disaster relief for the coming months.
As well as the American Red Cross, local organizations accepting blood donations are Carter BloodCare and the South Texas Blood & Tissue Center.


Coalition for the Homeless of Houston/Harris County coordinates the city's response to homelessness, serving as "a backbone organization" to groups that offer direct service. It has been providing updated information on shelters with available beds.
Airbnb has set up an urgent accommodations site, where people can open their homes to evacuees from the storm or find shelter themselves. Service fees are waived for those who check in by Sept. 1.


A number of food banks will be aiding the affected region. Consider donating money instead of food, as it allows a food bank to use your donation most efficiently.
Feeding Texas is a statewide nonprofit that works alongside state and federal relief efforts. The organization says it steps in during major disasters to "coordinate with the state and other providers so that relief reaches families quickly and the 'second disaster' of an unorganized response is avoided."
Here is its list of food banks in Texas likely to be affected by Harvey:

People With Disabilities

Portlight Strategies facilitates projects involving people with disabilities, including post-disaster relief work. The organization says its hotline for Inclusive Disaster Strategies has received urgent requests from people in need.


The Texas Diaper Bank, based in San Antonio, works to meet the basic needs of vulnerable babies, children with disabilities, and seniors. It focuses on providing partner agencies with diapers and goods.


The SPCA of Texas is organizing evacuations of pets in Texas (including 123 cats from a shelter in Corpus Christi) and offers resources on pet-friendly housing for evacuees.
Austin Pets Alive! says it has transported more than 235 animals to its shelter. The organization seeks donations, as well as people who can adopt animals. It says it has received so many donated supplies that it's running out of storage space, so financial donations are what it needs most.
The best source of communication at this time is the Zello walkie talkie app. There are many more organizations on the ground helping in the rescue efforts, and the majority are using this app to navigate to where the needs are. Please download the Zello app, create a user name and password, type in Texas search and rescue, and then search for any search and rescue teams close to your vicinity. (example - DickinsonSearch)This will connect you with rescue officials on the ground there that can navigate help your way. 

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Digging Up the Brilliance of the Ruth Galloway Series

The Ruth Galloway series,
books 1 (2009)- 9 (2017).
The Crossing Places by Elly Griffiths, the first book in the Ruth Galloway series, sat on my to-read shelf for a long time. The murder mystery description had caught my eye, but at the same time, the story line described seemed mystical and almost stereotypical in it's 'British woman with bad ass job saves the day' angle. After letting it sit there for a long while, I finally dove into this one.  I regret that I didn't do it sooner. We are first introduced to British archaeologist, Ruth Galloway, through the discovery and exhumation of the body of a little girl, found in a salt marsh near Norfolk, England.  She is met by surly Detective Chief Inspector, Harry Nelson, who expects Ruth to date the body in hopes that is the solution to a long time cold case.  This brief bit of archaeological dating in tandem with the cold case intrigues Ruth, and she dives into a case that is much more complicated and much more deadly than she and Harry could have imagined.

I was right about my initial assumptions; this is a murder mystery, with subtle touches of mysticism, spiritualism, and other-worldliness.  All of Griffiths' Galloway books have an archaeological slant, which alone creates an air of mystery.  Most of the archaeological sites at the focus of each novel are from ancient times (Galloway's specialty) and have some type of religious/occult background; this element plays a part in the mystery and sometimes, tends to help the solution as well. The mysteries in this series vary.  Some of gruesome and complex and have the reader on the edge of their seat.  Others are simple, rather predictable.  However, these simple mysteries allow Griffiths to explore the dark side of people; the mystery is not the main part of the story, but rather the dark, complicated natures of those involved are the story.  Writing about the complexity of people and their relationships with others is where Griffiths excels.  The characters are written simplistically. Griffiths does not flesh out her characters in description; rather, she uses inner thoughts and character interactions to illustrate the personalities of her characters.  The minor characters are just as enthralling and colorful as the major characters, and all play intrinsic roles in each story. There are cops, druids, kids, crazy parents, and significant others that not only develop the main characters, but also help to push the story along. These characters, although minor, become as important to the story as the main, and the reader will become just as entrenched with them as they do with the main characters.

Author Elly Griffiths
There is a certain 'Britishness' about this series which makes it awesome.  Griffiths throws in British colloquialisms that make the words come alive.  The characters show a particular stoicism that is definitely a British stereotype, but, in the series' case, helps create a quiet feeling of impending urgency and doom.  The quiet, reserved interactions between the characters create a feeling of withheld information that will reveal itself throughout the course of the story. Ruth herself is a quiet, reserved hot mess; her personal life is a disaster, she struggles with choices between personal and professional, but she almost always presents a persona of a knowledgeable, collected academic .  This makes Ruth more relatable, as she plows through life and cases wildly, but also keeps calm and carries on, even in the face of disaster. The descriptions are just enough to give you a vague idea of the settings and of physical appearances; otherwise, Griffiths dedicates the word count to ideas, thoughts, dialogue, and action. This series gets back to the roots of the mystery genre; nothing cozy, cutesy, or cookie cutter about these books, only the human condition, darkness, and history that still drives people to greatness or madness.

Do not, I repeat, do not be a Megan and let this series languish on your 'To-Read' shelf.  You are doing yourself an injustice.  These stories are excellent examples of what could happen when history meets the present and how it can spell dark disaster.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

They Needed a Bigger Boat...Real Shipwrecks, Real Stories

Recently, I have embarked on a new, rather morbid fascination with nonfiction featuring shipwrecks and the stranded crew's quests for survival.  This is a departure from my usual crime spree nonfiction and my love for political nonfiction.  Shipwreck: the very word conjures up images of carnage, desperation, survival, unkempt beards, cannibalism, and the ultimate battle between the forces of nature and man.  As a society, we have romanticized the idea of a shipwreck, of the castaways stranded, and of the epic battle to get home.  There is absolutely nothing romantic about Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing and In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick.  These are stories of horrible circumstances, lives in peril, the brutality of nature, the despair and hopelessness that come with the dawning realization that they are probably not going to survive.  Nevertheless... I hate to admit, these books, although stark, gritty, horrifying, and enthralling do nothing to dispel the myth of the rugged sailor making life and death decisions and prevailing over the environment.  Once immersed, the reader will realize that these are also stories of strength, grit, perseverance, hope, faith, and the discovery of what mankind's spirit is truly made of when confronted with doom.  The shipwreck, which is a momentous disaster, is just the beginning...

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick was published 2000 and won the National Book Award for Nonfiction that same year.  It traces the voyage of the Essex, a whale ship out of Nantucket that served as the inspiration for Moby Dick by Herman Melville.  The Essex was commissioned to venture into the Pacific Ocean and hunt sperm whales, a valuable source of whale oil in the 19th century.  In 1820, more than year into their voyage, a sperm whale bull attacked and sank the ship, leaving 20 men stranded on small whaling boats, adrift in the Pacific.  The tale inevitably devolves in tough decisions, bad decisions, desperation, death, and an unlikely ending. In the Heart of the Sea weaves a tale of a disaster that affected a crew, a community, and became a grave warning that resonated throughout generations of sailors: do not underestimate nature.  He is sparse with his descriptions, focusing on drawing out the action and the development of the crew members as they changed from everyday sailors to survivors.  Drawing largely from the account of Thomas Nickerson, the 14 year old cabin boy who was one of the few survivors of the ordeal, Philbrick's account of the Essex focuses less on the actual crash but more on the reactions, actions, and lack thereof from the crew.  He develops the crew based on the historical evidence, primary resources, and personal accounts recorded from the survivors; the reader witnesses crew members either rise to occasion of survival or sink abysmally into despair. What makes this book so startling is that Philbrick does not shy away from pointing out the numerous mistakes and fatal decisions made that, if done differently, would have made this shipwreck just a mere inconvenience.  However, Philbrick writes the tragedy with grace, understanding, and empathy.  It never crosses the line into the sensational; this is not a sensational story meant to illicit shock and a fascination for gore. It is to remind audiences of the ultimate cost of fighting nature and the prices sometimes paid by men who considered the seas their real home.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing was originally published in 1959.  Comprised from the diaries kept by crew members and from lengthy interviews conducted by Lansing with the elderly remaining survivors, Endurance is an intimate portrait of the ill-fated exploration voyage to Antarctica in 1914.  Unlike In the Heart of the Sea, Endurance could be considered the ultimate survival success story.  Under the helm of Captain Ernest Shackleton, the Endurance sailed to Antarctica, became trapped in ice, and was eventually crushed from the pressures of the changing ice pack flows.  This left the 28 man crew faced with surviving a landscape of nothing but ice and freezing water, not to mention the prospect of a more than 800 mile journey to inhabited land.  Eventually, 28 men were rescued. Their ordeal became the poster child for successful survival, exemplary leadership, and unbreakable teamwork under dire conditionsEndurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage is more of a biographical account of the ordeal, rather than a typical historical nonfiction.  Lansing does not spend time discussing the circumstances in which the Endurance sailed; the story is about the ship, the wreck, and the quest for survival.  There is little speculation, interpretative insight, or later research in this book, just straight recounting of the facts. With this style and with the incredulous circumstances of the event, the narrative definitely reads more of a fiction action story than a true to life story.  However, Lansing does an excellent job in building up hope, then dashing it, then rebuilding.  The reader is constantly on the edge, wondering if the next page spells disaster or rescue for the crew.

These are two vastly different accounts of vastly different tragedies.  However, these books are well worth reading around the same time.  It is an interesting break down of how similar situations can have completely outcomes.  I could recommend reading them in the order I presented here; the technological differences and progression of communication in less than a hundred years is incredible and no doubt had some impact on the events' endings.  However, the human spirit and the basic instinct to survive has not changed much. Readers will be buoyed by the resilience of the crew members; these books, these memories of strength and courage might serve as a reminder that we are tougher than we think.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Discovering the Secrets of the Universe...and of Yourself

When a book starts out with "The problem with my life was that it was someone else's idea," you know you're in for a rough ride.  The heartbreaking and beautiful Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is rough, soft, draining, and uplifting in a way that is hoped for but unexpected.  Published in 2012 by American poet and author, Benjamin Alire SáenzAristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is a novel marketed to the young adult audience and explores a several year friendship between two Mexican-American young men, Aristotle (Ari) and Dante, who could not be anymore different.  However, they are strangely drawn to one another and become fast friends.  Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is more than just a story about friends though; it is about discovering the secrets of the universe, which, in the end, is discovering who you truly are.

Ari is a quiet, unsure teen, who is struggling with himself and with his family dynamics, loving, but wounded by the absence of his imprisoned brother.  Dante comes from a supportive, open home and is confident, self-possessed and borderline brilliant.  One of the more controversial aspects of this book is the friendship between Ari and Dante; Ari is struggling with his sexual identity, while Dante is confident in his homosexuality, just like he is confident in everything else about himself.  Their friendship becomes increasingly complicated when Ari realizes that he might be more emotionally invested in Dante than he expected to be.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz
This book is one of the best  YA novels I have read.  It unfolds slowly, but beautifully.  The characters are onions; there are layers and layers to each characters and Sáenz seems to delight in revealing their secrets. The characters are the main force in this book and they are well developed and are extremely easy to relate to. The action is driven methodically towards a climax that is rather predictable, but at the same time satisfying. Sáenz was not afraid to tackle hard hitting topics.  The book covers a myriad of topics, ranging from sexuality to family secrets to growing up to self-acceptance.  Ari's fear that he will become just another angry, imprisoned Mexican-American man like his brother is an undercurrent that drives his actions; he struggles with his emotions and feelings, and tries hard to balance his own wants, Dante's wants, and what he perceives are his parents'  wants.  The concept of keeping the peace with his parents also colors his relationships with others; Sáenz captures the never-ending angst of trying to be yourself while simultaneously trying to be the child your parents want you to be.  Sáenz also illustrates the difficulty of being a a homosexual Mexican-American male, especially during the time setting of the book (1987).  Ari fights his blossoming feelings for Dante, largely because he cannot mesh being Mexican-American and being in love with a male.  His struggle is contrasted with Dante, who does not seem to be bothered by his ethnicity and sexuality at all.  This quiet confidence makes Ari even more uncomfortable and it leads him to make some choices that will define his and Dante's paths forever.  Love is a powerful motivator in this book and Sáenz makes sure to illustrate the different types of love; parental, sibling, friends, romantic, all types of love can impact and reveal the secret of who you truly are.  Young love is more than just a flight of fancy in this book.  Sáenz makes is a defining concept for the characters and draws the reader into reflection of love being a defining characteristic of life.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe is Sáenz's love letter to youth, self-discovery, and second chances.  You will cry, you will reflect, you will cringe, and you will be pulled into this story of love, self-discovery, and ultimately, self-acceptance.  It will make you view your life with new eyes and wonder what is holding you back from self love, self acceptance, and your own secret to the universe. 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Rook Takes Bishop...

 As a librarian, people suggest books to me almost constantly.  Most suggestions are well-intended, but I usually do not heed them; I have very particular tastes in books and most of the suggestions do not make the cut.  However, when a coworker suggested The Rook by Daniel O'Malley, I considered and then put it on hold.

Oh. My. Gosh.  What a book.  A 2012 debut (a DEBUT!!!!) novel from O'Malley, an Australian author, The Rook begins with a woman in a park, at dark, surrounded by dead people wearing latex gloves, and no memory.  Long story short, Myfanwy Thomas is a member of the Checquy, a secret government organization dedicated to fighting the supernatural.  The Checquy, as Thomas discovers, is a hierarchical government agency that deals not only with supernatural events, but also with the everyday humdrum boring monotony of government work.  That is all I am going to give away about the plot.  This is the type of book that needs to slowly unfold as you read it; it is best to approach this book without any preconceived notions or ideas.  There is definitely magical and supernatural elements at work in this novel; there is also startlingly human elements at play, emotions, plans, and a search for self that pushes the plot forward and helps the reader more readily relate to the characters.

The Rook has been described as an "adult Harry Potter", which is offensive to both series.  This is far different from Harry Potter, which transports the reader to another world and encourages them to explore their feelings and imagination.  The Rook takes real life and adds a spin to it; albeit, the spin is complex, but not a stretch to the point where the reader doubts the validity.  Anyone can see themselves as the bedraggled government worker who is burned out on their job and the politics of the job to the point where an militia of ghouls, an infestation of zombies, or a dragon hatching is just another mound of paperwork.  What O'Malley manages to do with this book is create a mystery in a setting that is perceived as everyday and boring to the people in the book.  However, by having a protagonist with no memory, O'Malley still manages to tell a story and immerse the reader in a new world at the same time.  There is constantly a thin line between fantasy and real life throughout the novel and the reader finds themselves weaving in and out of the past and the present and questioning what is normal and what is not.  Flashbacks in books are frequently poorly handled, but O'Malley finds a clever way to catch the reader up on the past and on the vast array of information and characters presented.

Author Daniel O'Malley
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the story is the characters that O'Malley creates.  Most of the Checquy's members are recruited because they posses supernatural powers.  These powers range from small to nuclear (literally) and are the sword arm of the Chequy's power. O'Malley creates characters with personalities to fit their powers and these people are what make this book exciting, intriguing, funny, and dangerous.  There is an vast array of different personalities and these differences shine through in use of their powers and in the witty, clever dialogue that peppers the story.  Even the characters who are meant to be boring government pencil pushers are interesting and well-done.  Without O'Malley's talent for creating characters, The Rook would be lackluster.  It is truly the human element that triumphs the supernatural, making for both an exhilarating climatic end and a hunger for more.

I cannot fangirl enough about this book.  I cannot believe I went four years without knowing this book existed.  It is the best of mystery, the best of fantasy, and the best of mild horror all wrapped into one book.  If you read anything in 2017, please read The Rook.  It is suspenseful, funny, intellectual, and intriguing while remaining fast-paced and exciting.